ST. LOUIS – The worst game of Albert Pujols'(notes) career included the sort of denouement reserved for far lesser beings. To those inside the game of baseball and especially those who spent Thursday in this city's secular cathedral, Busch Stadium, Pujols is a god of the sport. And gods don't break their bats on 84-mph changeups.
When the business end of his Marucci AP-5 model helicoptered into the middle of the diamond in the 10th inning Thursday, it thudded on the grass in concert with the groans from around the stadium. The shattered-bat groundball started the third double play into which Pujols hit, a single-game record for opening day and something done only 99 other times over the last century or so. Couple them with a popout and flyout, and for the first time in Pujols' career, he accounted for eight outs in one game.
It wasn't the most opportune timing, either, and not just because his St. Louis Cardinals lost their opener to the San Diego Padres, 5-3, in 11 innings. For the first time since his contract negotiations with the Cardinals went sour during spring training, Pujols appeared in front of a St. Louis crowd frightened by his impending free agency. Pujols jerseys still dotted the crowd every fifth seat or so, and his minions showered him with cheers during pregame introductions.
After Pat Neshek(notes) jammed him and induced the third double play, fans weren't quite as effusive. Some boos peppered the grumbles, perhaps the first time in Pujols' career that more than one or two disgruntled fans joined voices in displeasure. And though the rotten apples were but a fraction of the 46,368 who piled into Busch, they nonetheless symbolize that this season is going to be different than Pujols' previous 10, the specter of his future casting a pall over his present.
"It's just a bad game, man," Pujols said. "What, am I going to shoot myself up? It's just a bad game, and that's it."
Pujols is entitled to a few, of course. He had gone 0 for 5 before. Twenty-eight times in 1,558 games. And he had hit into two double plays in a game eight times. He's generally among the league leaders grounding into double plays, a product of rockets he hits – two of his on Thursday were shots – and the fact that a motivated slug might move down the line faster than him.
Still, this was un-Pujols-like in a number of ways. He is an opening day maven. Last year he went 4 for 5 with two home runs. In 2006, he hit two more home runs and drove in four runs. Before Thursday, Pujols had hit .472 in 10 openers with a .917 slugging percentage, 14 RBIs and 12 runs. Never had he hit into a double play on opening day.
More than that, Pujols is particularly good at capturing moments and making them his own, and to start off the most interesting season of his career with a bang would have sent a message: This is what a $300 million player looks like. One day does not a few hundred million make, but on this stage, in this instance, before his minions – well, it would have been nice.
Already there were messages all around what Pujols means to St. Louis and especially to the Cardinals. When Jim Edmonds(notes) threw out the first pitch, who caught it? Pujols. When Stan Musial and Bob Gibson and Lou Brock and Ozzie Smith and Red Schoendienst wore red sport coats to greet the present-day Cardinals, who fit in best among them? Pujols. His bonds to St. Louis are ionic, his place in the city iconic. He is, opening day 2011 notwithstanding, the Cardinals.
Franklin allowed a two-out, game-tying home run by Cameron Maybin(notes) in the ninth to force extra innings and cap Pujols' day of ignominy. Reliever Bryan Augenstein(notes) spared him a shot at Joe Torre's 35-year-old record of four double plays in a game by allowing two runs in the top of the 11th. And Friday's off day gives Pujols a chance to digest his afternoon and the Chicken Littles to realize that one game accounts for .62 percent of the Cardinals' season.
If this keeps going for a week, or continues until the end of April, or crops up in earnest some time during the summer, only then will come the questions about the effect of what's to come in November and December. Pujols is likely to render them moot in due time; he is so singularly focused, so obsessive, tying the three double plays to anything other than luck and poor swings is foolish.
So, too, were the boos. Pujols isn't a villain for turning down a contract in excess of $200 million just as the Cardinals aren't bad guys for offering him one well below market value. It is the game within the game. Though the collateral damage of business finds its greatest victims in box seats, sports fans should know better by now than to single out one player for chasing money. All of the deals are ridiculous, all of the figures beyond comprehension.
It's reality, though, and how it plays in a salt-of-the-earth Midwest town is in large part why this story overflows with intrigue. All of the emotions that sports create – joy and fear and loyalty and triumph and tragedy – come together in a tidy package stamped with one word: Pujols.
"I don't think about that, man," he said. "I flip the page and play the game. It's about playing baseball right now, not thinking about what I said a month ago or what fans are saying."
They said yay and they said boo and they said plenty of other things on this day. Everything in St. Louis orbits around Planet Pujols in 2011. And while he helped throw away opening day, there is some solace to take from his performance.
It can't get much worse.